Whatever happened to the tradition of having people over for coffee and a chat? Though not something I have ever done, as host or guest, I still miss the courtesy and custom of “dropping by”. My Nana *always* had something sweet available to offer to a guest with their cup of coffee or tea, and it seemed like such a civilized, grown-up thing to do, to sit and talk over coffee and a slice of cake, or cookie, or piece of pie. Perhaps her Swedish heritage gave her a leg up, an innate sense of how to entertain lightly. There is the wonderful Swedish fika, a coffee break that is so much more. The idea of setting aside time to catch up with friends in a relaxed setting with sweets is just about the best thing I can think of. My enchantment with the idea of fika may explain my undying love for cardamom-heavy breads and rolls that are ideal for dunking in coffee or tea. Someday I will share our precious family recipe for bullar; until then, let me introduce you to semlor.
A semla is a yeasted cardamom roll with a two-part filling of almond cream and whipped cream. It is not very sweet; think of it less as a cream puff, despite its appearance, and more along the lines of a scone, muffin or breakfast bread. A semla is for dunking. In addition to cardamom rolls and loaves, I adore fruit-studded breads like hot cross buns, and the texture of these semlor is quite like that of a good hot cross bun. Semlor are traditionally associated with Shrove Tuesday, when they were eaten as the last indulgent treat before Lent. Nowadays, they are available year-round, though some still hold to tradition by serving a semla floating in a bowl of warm milk. In Finland, the almond filling is sometimes replaced with raspberry jam– I will be anxious to try that variation.
As with any raised bread, making semlor is a time-consuming process, though not difficult. I successfully employed my stand mixer to do most of the work, in the interest of saving time, but the steps are straightforward (even if you’re working the dough by hand) and well worth the time spent. I very lightly adapted this recipe from Allrecipes.com by taking away some sugar in the bread and adding more cardamom. I also used almond paste instead of marzipan, and though the differences are subtle, I believe this swap may have lessened the sugar even more. The most challenging part of the process was preparing the almond cream; almond paste is finicky to work with and expensive, so I was determined to get it right without waste or do-overs. If you’re not up to the challenge (or hassle), go the Finnish route of raspberry jam, or add a few drops of almond extract to your whipped cream and skip the almond cream altogether. In my opinion, the rolls are so good they can be eaten plain; the fillings just take them to another level.
A semla with my morning coffee is a treat I look forward to having again soon; I won’t be waiting for next Shrove Tuesday. The roll soaks up some coffee (coffee and cardamom together is one of my favorite flavor pairs) and the cream filling melts slightly and gives a rich creaminess to your coffee. It’s a nice way to start a Sunday, or anyday, let me tell you. Someday, I hope to have semlor on hand when a friend stops by to chat. We will try this lovely concept of fika.
Cardamom Rolls with Almond-Cream Filling (Semlor) (makes 24)
For the rolls:
- 10 T. unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 c. whole milk
- 2 large eggs
- 2 1/4 tsp. yeast
- 6 c. all-purpose flour, separated
- 1/3 c. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom, preferably freshly-ground
- 4 tsp. baking powder
For the fillings:
- 1/2 c. whole milk (more as needed)
- 4 oz. almond paste
- 1 pint of heavy whipping cream
- 2 T. sugar
In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter; add the milk and continue to heat just until lukewarm. (I played this by touch, but you’re looking for 70-80 degrees if using a thermometer.) Whisk the eggs lightly and then whisk them into the lukewarm milk mixture. Transfer to the bowl of your stand mixer and add the yeast; set the bowl aside for 5 mins. to allow the yeast to soften.
While the yeast is blooming, sift together 5 c. of flour, salt, 1/3 c. sugar and the ground cardamom. Return to the milk mixture and check to make sure the yeast is dissolving and spreading to cover the top of the mixture. Break up any clumps, gently, and allow those to soften. When you are ready to proceed, add about half of your flour mixture to the bowl and use a dough hook to gently mix on a low speed until combined. Add the rest of the flour and mix again until you have a very wet, very soft dough that resembles thick pancake batter. Remove the bowl from the mixer and cover with a towel; rest the dough for 30 mins. in a warm place.
When the 30 mins. is up, the dough should look like it expanded slightly, but it will still be wet. Sift together the remaining 1 c. flour and baking powder and add it to your dough. Put the bowl back on the mixer stand and mix slowly, so you don’t cover the kitchen in flour, until combined. At this point your dough should be smooth, only slightly sticky (if at all) and very supple. Prepare your baking pans: I used a half-sheet cake pan (about 12″ x 16″ rectangle) but you can use one or two cookie or jelly roll pans instead. Cover the bottom of your pan(s) with parchment paper or lightly grease them. Pull off balls of dough, slightly smaller than a tennis ball, and roll them into smooth rounds. You want consistently sized balls for even baking; at the end, I eyed the pan and pulled bits from larger rolls to add to the smaller ones. Try to get 24 rolls from the batch.
Cover your pan(s) and allow the rolls to proof for 35 mins., during which they will not quite double. At that time, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and, when it has come up to temperature, bake the semlor for 20-30 mins., until golden brown and hollow-sounding when you tap on the top. Cool the rolls until they can be pulled or cut apart neatly, about 45 mins. to an hour.
When the rolls are sufficiently cooled, make your filling. I highly recommend employing a food processor, as you are trying to turn stiff almond paste into a filling with a pudding-like consistency. Use a sharp knife to slice the top off each semla; pull out a few tablespoons of the soft center (placing the bread scraps in the bowl of your food processor) to create a well for the fillings. When you have cut and scooped all of the rolls, add 1/2 c. milk to the bread scraps and let it soak for a few minutes. Break the almond paste into smaller chunks (it is often a solid piece coming out of the can) and add to the milk and bread mixture; pulse, scraping down the sides of the food processor bowl as necessary, until you have a uniform consistency that resembles Greek yogurt or thick pudding. Add more milk, 1 T. at a time, if necessary to smooth the filling out, but be careful not to make it too runny.
In your stand mixer bowl, whip the cream with the remaining 2 T. sugar until it holds a stiff peak. Transfer the whipped cream to a pastry bag, or a Ziploc-style bag with a hole cut in the bottom corner.
Place one tablespoonful of the almond filling in the well of each hollowed semla and pipe whipped cream to cover. Return the top of each roll and press down slightly. Repeat until all your semlor are filled.
Serve with hot coffee or tea. Store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, tightly covered. Rolls can be frozen without fillings but are best served fresh.